Among my fondest memories, growing up, is flying into Jaipur from Calcutta, with my family, to spend summer vacation at dadajis house. There weren’t too many flights back then and we’d saunter into the airport with our bags, go through the relaxed security screenings and browse the airport bookstore as we waited to board. The airport in Jaipur was small. We’d walk from the tarmac to the terminal and instantly see my grandfather or uncle who’d come to receive us. I remember dadaji leaning on the railing, a few feet away from the conveyor belt happily waving and smiling at me. I’d climb on the first railing from the other side while he hugged me, oblivious to my parents struggling with the bags and my baby sister. And then 9/11 happened.
One fine day we were told that planes had been hijacked and rammed into 2 tall buildings in New York. As a child I watched the news with morbid fascination. It was thousands of miles away and I didn’t think it would affect my life in any direct way and for a long time it didn’t. Until I took my next flight, a short one from Jaipur to Delhi, where my parents had since relocated to. The relaxed, exciting vibe was replaced by terse faces, the security screening took much longer than usual and I was still in queue when boarding was announced. That was perhaps the first time in memory that I hadn’t visited the airport bookshop. When I arrived at Delhi airport I had to collect my luggage, make the long lonely walk to outside the terminal and search for my father who’d come to receive me. I had outgrown the arrival railing but I instinctively glanced towards it expecting to see scores of people waiting for loved ones, but it was empty. They were all outside.
In the larger scheme of things, these are minor almost insignificant changes in our daily lives. The ‘normal’ in the post 9/11 world was different from what was ‘normal’ before it. Likewise, after the Mumbai terror attacks, a meal at a fancy hotel, suddenly meant a round of checks when the car pulled in, followed by depositing your belongings for an X-ray screening, and then being screened yourself by a guard with a metal detector. We do this now like we’ve always done it, it’s become a part of muscle memory, dropping bags for checks, getting patted down at places like the mall or a hotel is so normal that we don’t think twice about it.
Every time the world faces a calamity, man-made or natural, new protocol is put in place, minor changes that you quickly adapt to and embrace as the ‘new normal’. Which brings me to the calamity we are now facing. A global pandemic has swept through the world facilitated by our connectivity and mobility. Scientists are scrambling to find a vaccine, leaders are locking down entire countries and people are struggling to deal with the restrictions as they try to adapt to this new way of living. One day we will find a cure, we will go back to the world but will it be like we left it?
Will airport security include a temperature screening round, an additional queue to stand in and clear before you board a flight. Will a medical certificate become as mandatory as a visa. Will we ever be able to go to a concert, a cricket match, a food festival without a sliver of doubt creeping into our minds. Will stockpiling groceries to be stored away for another possible lockdown become normal. Will companies realize that most work can be done from home and make it acceptable to do so. How many parents will willingly send their kids for those fancy exchange programs and trips to NASA. When we finally do travel to Italy or the USA will a pandemic museum or memorial become a part of our itineraries like Ground Zero is for tourists in New York. Will families of doctors and nurses live in as much fear as those of soldiers. Will company off-sites and conferences be struck of organization budgets. Will slipping on a mask to head out be as common as slipping into shoes.
My guess is as good as yours. We will find out eventually but knowing me, I think I’m going to reach airports an hour or so earlier so I can still browse the airport bookshop.